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Overhaul overdue

Katie Manning, Santo Domingo, Dominican RepublicMay 12, 2014

The Dominican Republic has one of the world's worst education systems. Now it is finally investing money in schools. Thousands of classrooms are due to be built, although there are too few teachers for the existing ones.

Students at Republic of Argentina school
Image: Katie Manning

Yovanny Gomez escapes from a sticky hot courtyard full of teenage students. He teaches math at the Republic of Argentina School, a free public school with 1,000 students in the Colonial District, a middle-class area in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Gomez plops down next to the breeze of a new air conditioner in the teacher's lounge.

"Two or three years ago this school was practically a cemetery of waste," he said. "There was trash, disorganization. The school wasn't painted. There wasn't air conditioning in the offices. Really everything was a mess because we didn't have any of the necessary resources to teach."

In the Caribbean nation of nearly 10 million people, the education system ranks among the worst in the world. Test scores in urban areas are as low as in rural areas. Poor students can't escape the failing public education system, making it difficult for them to break out of poverty.

Like its neighbors, the Dominican Republic struggles with overcrowded classrooms in shoddy facilities. There's a high dropout rate, an outdated curriculum, overage students who fail classes and have to repeat grades, among other problems. But perhaps the most worrying issue is poorly trained teachers.

Math teachers only understood 42 percent of the material they were supposed to be teaching, according to a recent study by education experts.

School teacher Felix Sanchez
Felix Sanchez says that families need to do more to help their children at school tooImage: Katie Manning

Low pay, tough conditions

Low pay makes the profession a tough sell. School teachers like Gomez earn a base salary of about 250 ($344) euros a month. The average university-educated worker earns 457 euros a month, according to the most recent figures from the Dominican Central Bank.

Gomez opted to get his master's degree in teaching anyway. But it hasn't been easy to be a teacher.

"We don't make a living wage for a family," he said. "A teacher can't have his own house, a car or support his family. A teacher might want to have children, but can't afford them. We can't even afford Internet with this salary. We want a salary that will pay for these things."

The Dominican Republic is the first country in the Caribbean to undertake a major education overhaul. In 2012, voters convinced all presidential candidates to promise - if elected - to double the education budget. Now President Danilo Medina is staking his reputation on education reform. The country will spend 4 percent of its GDP - almost 2 billion euros in 2014. Deputy Education Minister Luis Matos de La Rosa says the reform targets five problem areas.

"We can't say which part is the most important," de La Rosa told DW. "Everything is happening at the same time."

"Obviously first we need new spaces. We're also hiring people to fill these spaces, expanding preschool enrollment, teaching people to read and extending the school day.

But all efforts aren't funded equally. Construction gets four times more money than teacher training and hiring.

The government will build 28,000 new classrooms by 2016, but right now there aren't enough teachers for the classrooms they already have. Student-teacher ratios in schools with more than 500 students are 78:1 - this accounts for 68 percent of total enrollment for public schools.

Teachers have also protested and temporarily shut down schools to demand a 100-percent salary increase over the past few years, but they've gained little ground.

Maribel Hernandez, the communications director behind the education-funding increase, said the decision plays to politics.

School kid returning home in Mata Limon, Dominican Republic
Many kids are not used to the longer school day that has recently been introducedImage: Katie Manning

"The president usually wants to be re-elected. When he wants to get back in office, he'll say, 'This is what I built. This is what I did.' And they have concrete things to show, but training teachers, that's really intangible," said Hernandez.

Longer school days

The government is extending the school day to eight hours from five, aiming to have 80 percent of schools operating on an eight-hour day by 2016.

But students only learn for two hours and 40 minutes out of the five hours during the typical school day, according to a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) survey. They often hang out in class while they're supposed to be studying.

More class time won't mean better grades unless the extra time is invested in quality teaching and an extended curriculum.

"When you go to schools that have had their school days extended, what you'll find is a lot of boys and girls sleeping. They haven't figured out what the children should learn in these extra hours," said Hernandez.

Yirmel Sanchez, a skinny 13-year-old student at the Republic of Argentina School, started going to school for eight hours a day last year.

"It was a little exhausting, but I got used to it, and it's good to learn new things," he said.

Every day when he gets home, he goes online to learn outside the classroom. It also sharpens his tech skills, which he hopes will eventually help him land a job.

But unlike Sanchez, most students in the country don't have the luxury to take their education into their own hands. Only half of the population has Internet access.

In the poor, rural town of Mata Limon, just north of Santo Domingo, 550 students share two computers. Many children have to work to help make ends meet, and education often suffers.

Teeenage girl sitting in class in Mata Limon, Dominican Republic
One in four teenage girls in Dominican Republic get pregnant and many drop out of schoolImage: Katie Manning

A question of culture?

Behind the school, construction workers are laying down concrete blocks to build a new school. But principal Felix Sanchez said they'll need more than new buildings to turn things around.

"I would say it's something about our country's culture. A lot of the time, families don't understand the importance of their children's educational responsibilities."

Across the country, about 40 percent of boys and girls leave school before eighth grade. Even those who get through high school and complete 12 years of school start college at a sixth-grade reading level, according to a Dominican university study.

Despite its problems, Dominicans seem pleased with the reform. They say it's a step up from what they had before - an iron-fisted dictator, then human rights abuses and corruption.